After a full two weeks in Georgia I am more aware than ever of how much I have to learn, how rich and deep this country’s food culture is. And of course I should write in the plural, for though there’s a shared pan-Georgian approach to feasting and hospitality and a respect for good food, there are also very different dishes and ideas about what to serve when and how, in the many different regions of this small country.
Still that diversity is not where I’m headed with this post. Talk of specifics will have to wait until I have digested my experiences here, pun intended and very appropriate. Meantime I want to talk about living generously. And also about appearances and assumptions…
Late this afternoon I went with Tamar to the apartment of a family that we both had met only last week. They are all friends of the remarkable cheese-maker Ana. We’d met them at Ana’s farm just outside Tbilisi, a place she is working to transform into a kind of food Eden. (She’s well on her way: the south-sloping terrain is green-grassed, with ploughed patches that are her vegetbale plots. There are several walnut trees, apple and plum trees, hazelnuts, etc. And the soil is rich and clean.)
Today, though, we were far from idyllic green fields and fertile soil. We were in the Tbilisi suburbs, in a tall apartment-block landscape like that of many ex-Soviet towns. The blocks are charmless on the outside, access is usually through a cement entryway that leads to a chipped concrete staircase, and perhaps also to an elevator that may or may not work. Today’s place was like that.
We traveled up to the fourth floor and then walked into the apartment of our hosts. It wasn’t luxurious or flashy, no, but the difference once we were through the door was spectacular. There was warmth and charm. The table had been set with plates and glasses and clay ewers of Georgian wine, as well as with many of the dishes that were to be part of our meal: Emereti khachapuri (cheese-filled flatbreads made of leavened slow-rise dough filled in this case with cheese made by Ana); plain puri (long Khaketi-style bread batons); two kinds of Mingrelian adjika (condiment sauce that is an intense hit of flavor) red and green; leafy green salad dressed Khaketian-style; chicken roasted with coriander and garlic…
Warm late afternoon light came pouring in the windows, as our hosts brought more dishes to the table. Then we all sat down and began eating. A Georgian feasting meal is called a supra. This one was a mix of dishes from Khaheti in eastern Georgia and from Mingrelia, in western Georgia. The adjikas and also an unbelievalbly delicious pork dish made with various organ meats cut small and braised in a little oil flavored with red adjika, were from Mingrelia, home of Irma, one of the women who had cooked the feast.
Gia was tamada, or table-host, and he proposed the first toast of the evening, the classic opener, to God. And we went on from there to eat and drink and tell stories. Several late arrivals were specially toasted in welcome. And as they were still eating the singing began. It was not Georgian polyphonal music but instead Georgian popular songs, accompanied first by Gia’s guitar and then by Tina at the pinao. The music, the joking, the food explanations (translated for me by Tamar), the pleasurable moving from one rhythm to another during the meal, were all unselfconscious. The room was warm with ease and an in-the-moment delight.
Nothing about the outside of that apartment block, or its neighbours and cousins all around the outskirts of Tbilii, gives any hint of the warmth and beauty that each apartment may contain. Perhaps there’s extra inner warmth espceially because of the bleakness of the outside?
And as we travelled back home in a taxi I thought too about the unhurriedness of the meal and the evening. It wasn’t happening in furtherance of some goal or ambition, it was just itself, a gathering of people for a meal and the warmth that it would give.
So often in North America it seems to me we are rushing on to the next thing, rather than taking our time. It’s true not ony of many dinners but other social engagements as well. I am certainly part of the rushedness, impatient to get on to the next thing.
Here in Georgia I don’t get that sense at all. An enormous effort goes into preparing food and laying a generous table for friends and family and occasional strangers from afar like me. Even there, though the work (almost all of it done by women) is long, it happens not in a rush but with a kind of easy stamina. It will be finished and supper will be ready when it’s ready, not at some exact pre-appointed time. The waiting time will pass with conversation and joking around. It’s all part of a kind of rolling-with-the-punches unstructuredness that I find relaxing and welcoming.
And so the externals become less and less important. People dress with care and a great sense of fashion. The centre of the city is elegant, reminds me of Paris. But they don’t worry about the grey look of their apartment buildings or the dreariness of the entryways to home. What matters is the genuine warmth of the heart that people bring to the table. And that has a radiant glow to it.
Happy May 1 tomorrow everyone…